In Sweden, Sankta Lucia day, celebrated on Dec. 13, officially ushers in the holiday season. Marked by candlelight processions, Lucia day commemorates the life of Saint Lucia — an ancient mythical figure with an abiding role as a bearer of light in the dark Swedish winters.
Though there are many versions, the re-occurring legend tells the story of a young girl, clad in a white gown with a red sash, her head crowned by a halo of light, who appeared to bring hope, warmth and food to those in need during a time of famine in Sweden.
With a young girl chosen to play Saint Lucia, these candlelight processions are still held by the Swedish people. Handing out buns or cookies, Saint Lucia walks through schools and communities spreading her caring spirit to families and the less fortunate.
Like the lighted candles alluding to the coming of the light and warmth to the cold winter, so does the food that is traditionally served on Lucia day. The spices used to make Lucia buns, gingersnaps and hot spiced cider elicit warmth, and are very much part of the age old celebrations. All three are eaten during this day and are served throughout the holiday season.
Lussekatter or Saint Lucia buns are soft, buttery yeasty buns that taste faintly of saffron — a spice that imparts a golden yellow hue. The saffron is an important ingredient for the colour because it suggests the promise of light and sunshine that will soon replace the short, dark days. The cardamom in the buns also gives the buns a gentle heat that is much needed to endure the winter.
Making these buns, I have to say the aroma of the cardamom and saffron really gives a sense of coziness no matter what kind of deep freeze you may be experiencing. The time-consuming part of the buns is making the traditional shapes, which were derived from the distinctive bread of earlier Christmas celebrations in Sweden. Lucia buns are formed into a tight figure eight and then studded with currants or raisins on the inside of swirls. Most Internet sites view the shape as cat’s eyes but Swedish people don’t see this imagery.
Lucia celebration also brings forth the crispy, crunchy pepparkakor; a cookie that is similar to a gingersnap but is a bit spicier. Despite the name, there’s no pepper in these cookies and the bite to these comes from the combination of warm spices that includes ginger, cinnamon and ground cloves.
Unlike the soft texture of ginger cookies that most of us are familiar with, the pepparkakor is hard and crunchy, giving that “snap” when you take a bite. To achieve this distinctive sound, it is important to remember to chill and to roll the dough out as thinly as you can manage — a little extra flour on your rolling pin and work surface helps. In Sweden, the cookies are often cut into stars, trees, hearts and horses. But there’s no reason not to try any shape you like.
The beverage to sip and usually served with Lucia buns and pepparkakor is glögg. Glögg is hot, spicy mulled wine. There are as many recipes for this old traditional winter beverage, even some without alcohol. The spices and flavourings change just as freely, with most recipes calling for cardamom, cloves, cinnamon, orange peel, raisins, almonds, and sugar. Some brew and drink it on the spot, while others prefer to age it.
Whichever recipe you choose, glögg is pretty easy to make, and the added benefit is that your house smells amazing as you heat up all of the potpourri of flavours.
The Red Deer Swedish Vasa Lodge celebrates Lucia annually around Dec. 13. This year, I was able to attend the candlelight procession and experience one of Sweden’s most culture rich traditions. I would like to thank Carroll Borg with all her help in writing this article and Clarice Gustafson for sharing the Lussekatter and pepparkakor recipes.
Saint Lucia buns (Lussekatter)
2½ to 3 cups all-purpose flour
1 pkg dry yeast
1/3 cup sugar
1/4cup butter (no substitutes)
½ teaspoon salt
¼ teaspoon ground cardamom
1/8 ground saffron
¼ cup golden raisins
¼ cup slivered almonds, ground
1 egg white, slightly beaten
1 tablespoon water
Stir together 1 cup of the flour and the yeast in a large mixing bowl. Set mixture aside. Place milk, 1/3 cup sugar, butter, salt, cardamom and saffron in a small saucepan. Heat and still until just warm and butter almost melts. Turn dough in. Add flour into liquid until dough forms. Turn dough onto lightly floured surface, kneed until elastic dough is formed. Shape into a ball and place in a lightly greased bowl, turn once to grease entire surface. Cover and let rise for 1¼ hours. Punch dough down, and divide the dough into 24 balls.
Roll it out with both hands into a snake 12 to 14 inches long rope. You won’t need much if any flour for this. In fact, so the snakes can grip the work surface, you may need to brush the board with a moist paper towel every so often. With your pin, roll the dough snake along its length to flatten in it. This will allow you to achieve a tighter curl. Roll up one end half way. Turn the thing over and roll it up the other way. Lay them out on sheet pans lined with parchment. Pre-heat oven 350F. Stir together the egg white and water. Lightly brush onto buns and sprinkle with additional sugar. Bake rolls for 12 minutes or until golden.
Pepparkakor (ginger snaps)
1½ cups flour
1 teaspoon baking soda
1½ teaspoon ground ginger
1 tablespoon cinnamon
½ teaspoon ground cloves
½ cup butter
¾ cup sugar
1 egg, well beaten
1½ teaspoon dark corn syrup
Cream butter until soft. Gradually cream in sugar until fluffy. Mix dry ingredients together. Blend in flour mixture in thirds, mixing thoroughly after each addition. Chill in fridge several hours. Remove one-quarter of the chilled dough and roll on a lightly floured surface to 1/16-inch thickness. Cut with floured cookie cutter., Place on cookie sheet and repeat with remaining chilled dough. Bake at 375C for 6 to 8 minutes until lightly browned. Cool completely on rack before storing in airtight containers.
1 750-ml bottle of red wine
500-ml inexpensive brandy or vodka
10 cardamom pods
1 cinnamon stick (broken down)
1/2 orange peel (dried or fresh)
1/2 lbs sugar (regular or lumps)
Optional additions: 5 cloves, 1/2 cup raisins, 1/2 cup almonds, 5 dried figs
Heat the wine and brandy spices, fruit, and nuts in a pot (and any optional additions you might like.) Be careful not to boil the mixture; just let it simmer for about 45 minutes. Then strain through a cloth to remove all additions. You can also serve the Glögg with raisons or almonds. If you’d like the drink to be stronger, use more brandy.
Madhu Badoni is a Red Deer-based freelance food writer. She can be reached at email@example.com or on Twitter @madhubadoni. Watch for Madhu’s Masala-Mix blog on bprda.wpengine.com.